Chapter 25: The Fugitives

We knew that our happiness wouldn’t last. How could it? As far as the creatures on this planet knew, Aksel and I were fugitives who had escaped captivity and kidnapped an innocent alien child. Half-alien, anyway. They were bound to hunt us down sooner or later.

“We need a safer place to hide,” said Aksel.

I nodded. He was right. Though the quarry had been our safe haven all these years, it was far too large and too easy to find. That’s when I remembered. “I know just the place,” I said. “I mean, we’ll have to explore it just to be sure. But it just may work.”

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That afternoon, we set off on a hike through the mountains, keeping a wary eye out for scouts or aircraft that may be searching for runaway earthlings. After several hours in the scorching heat, we reached the entrance of the mysterious cavern I’d come across long ago.

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Aksel studied the boarded-over entrance with a dubious look. “Too bad we don’t have any flashlights,” he said. We ducked inside, then held hands and crept forward into the blackness. Chaplin, as usual, made no sound, but padded along close to our heels. After awhile, the darkness lessened, and the cavern was bathed in the soft, familiar glow of phosphorescent rocks.

Suddenly, Meiying came to an abrupt stop. “Look!” she cried, pointing. “It’s the sun and the moon! It’s the place, like the ghost lady said!”

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Sure enough, hanging on the stone wall were metal sculptures of the sun and the moon, both flecked with rust. I don’t know why – I mean, the ghost lady hadn’t exactly said what we’d find in this place, but I felt a surge of hope. “We need to keep looking,” I said. “This way!” I had spotted a flight of stairs, and led my family down into a large room. High above our heads, a hole in the cavern ceiling revealed a starry patch of night sky.

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Aksel sucked in his breath sharply and grabbed my arm. I turned, and there it was. A spaceship. Exactly like the one Arvid had been flying the night he abducted me.

Aksel and I let out whoops of glee. The girls bounced up and down, shrieking with excitement. We had a ship! The Jin-Arild family was going home!

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I wanted nothing more than for us to cram inside and get the heck outta there. But Aksel reminded me that we first had to go back to the quarry and gather supplies. “We need food and water for the journey,” he said.

“And we can’t leave Lucille,” said Meiying.

So, with great reluctance, we left our miracle ship behind and trudged back to the quarry. We stuffed as much food as possible into flimsy, homemade backpacks, and gathered a few pails and jugs full of water. At last, we spread out our bedrolls and prepared to spend one last night in our quarry home.

I wish that we hadn’t. I wish that we had chosen to flee that night, to return to the hidden cavern with our supplies. But exhaustion won. And so, when the aliens came that night, they found us.

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Chapter 24: Whatcha Gonna Do When They Come for You?

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I hate to say it, but I got a surge of pleasure seeing Arvid Bergfalk actually cringe in terror. “Please, don’t shoot, Phoenix,” he begged, voice trembling.

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Jia peering around the corner, her eyes extra-wide with shock. “Downstairs, hurry!” I told her. “I’ll meet you there. Go – now!” She turned and ran.

“Phoenix, you don’t want to do this,” said Arvid.

“My name is Xifeng. And yes, I do want to do this,” I said. “You kidnapped Aksel and me from our homes! You’ve tortured and starved us. You forced me to be your…your…” I couldn’t bring myself to say it. I steadied the gun, which shook in my hands, and pressed my fingers against the trigger, ready to squeeze.

Arvid’s voice came out in a panicked whimper. “But I had to do it,” he said. “You don’t understand. They made me treat you that way. They made me. I had no choice.”

I frowned. “Who are you talking about? How can anyone make you—”

Arvid shook his head. “I’m not allowed to say. They’d kill me – my family, too. And they’ll come for you, too. They are watching, Xifeng. They know – they’re com—” His words were cut off by a terrible gurgling, choking sound. Clutching at his throat, Arvid dropped to the floor and was still.

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“Arvid?” I whispered? He didn’t move. I dropped to the floor and checked his pulse, which I figured wasn’t too different from a human pulse. It was still there, beating hard. He hadn’t dropped dead – only fainted, or something. I don’t know why I felt relieved. I had meant to kill him, and maybe I would have. I don’t know.

I left him there on the floor and fled the Bergfalk house. When I reached the bottom of the stairs, Arvid’s father called out for me to stop. I whirled around and lifted my gun, and he fell back, raising his arms in surrender.

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“Let’s go,” I said to Jia, who was waiting for me beneath the house. “We have to get far away from here.”

“Where will we go?” asked Jia, panting as she jogged along beside me.

I pointed toward the dark silhouette of the mountains in the distance. “There. You will get to meet your sister, Meiying.”

“I have a sister?” Jia’s voice rose with excitement. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

I shushed her. “It wasn’t safe. Now hurry, before they find us!”

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We hiked by the light of the moons, following hidden trails that Aksel and I had discovered during our explorations. Just after dawn, we arrived at last to the quarry, which was now to become our permanent home. At least, on this planet.

Meiying and Jia’s reunion brought tears to my eyes, and to Aksel’s as well. “You did it,” he said, embracing me. “You brought our little girl home.”

“And I didn’t even have to kill anyone,” I said, smiling through my tears.

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We were a family – just the four of us. Plus Chaplin and Lucille, of course. And for the time being, anyway, we were safe and happy. It wasn’t over, though. I knew that well. There was no way Arvid was just going to let me take his daughter and disappear. And those people, or alien beings, or whatever he had mentioned, would be looking for us, too. They’ll come for you, too. They are watching, Xifeng. The words sent a shudder down my spine.

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Chapter 23: I Kind of Snapped

It wasn’t until Aksel and I saw the puppy that and we realized Meiying’s idea was more than just some childhood whimsy. And this was no ordinary puppy – at least not by earthling standards. It was pudgy, like a normal pup, with shiny, adoring eyes. But his fur was a strange mixture of bright green and blue, as though he had been painted by a class of hyper kindergartners. Even stranger, he didn’t bark. He was the quietest puppy I had ever seen.

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“We should name him Chaplin,” said Aksel. “After that actor in the silent films.” I grinned. Chaplin it was.

“I wonder where he came from,” I said, watching as he chased Meiying, lost his balance, and tumbled over. “I haven’t seen any dogs around here, or even in town.”

“I got him from Carrie,” said Meiying. “He was a present.”

Aksel and I looked at each other, alarmed. “Meiying, who is Carrie?” asked Aksel.

“The lady from the graveyard where Isä and I go camping sometimes,” said Meiying, as though we should already know.

“Was she – did Carrie have skin and ears like us, or was she…one of the others?” I asked, my heart racing. If some alien had met and spoken with our human daughter, then everyone on the planet would be alerted to her presence by now. There were no human children on Bixsi.

“No silly,” Meiying giggled. “Carrie is a ghost lady. She told me about the place of the sun and the moon, and she gave me my present.” She skipped away, Chaplin following close behind.

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A ghost. Of course. That explained everything. Well, not to Aksel, so I tried my best to fill him in on my family’s history with ghosts and ancestors.I didn’t know who Carrie could be. But maybe she had appeared from beyond to help us somehow.

Meanwhile, in my other life, I continued to try my best to offer Jia pieces of a normal childhood. I sewed a stuffed bear for her using scraps, then sneaked it into her house to play with her. Jia was delighted when I pretended to make the Sir Bear talk to her and tell stories. Unfortunately, her grandmother later punished her for engaging in make-believe play. After that, Jia wouldn’t even look at Sir Bear.

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The strict, stifling household was even worse than my home in China. I hated what it was doing to my daughter’s spirit. But even that was not what finally drove me to do what I did.

“We follow the plan,” Aksel had said. “We will not use the gun unless it is absolutely necessary. Understand?”

I nodded. Of course I wouldn’t use the gun. I was not a killer.

But one night sort of changed all of that.

Arvid had kept his distance from me for the most part since the girls had been born. Maybe he had an alien girlfriend – who knew? But I was grateful to not have to pretend anymore. I was grateful that I could be loyal to Aksel. However, that night, while I was at their home for a visit with Jia, Arvid grabbed me by the shirt and pulled me toward him for a wet, sloppy kiss.

“Come on,” he said when I shoved him away.

“You’re drunk!” I said in disgust. “Get away from me!”

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He narrowed his eyes. “It’s him, isn’t it?” When I didn’t answer, he grew enraged. “You know where he’s been hiding, don’t you? Two little secret lovebirds. I’m going to hunt him down and kill him. And you – ” He sneered. “You belong to me. You will do whatever I tell you to do. Or you can forget about ever seeing Jia again.”

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“No!” I cried. “Okay, I’ll do it. I’ll do whatever you say.” Just don’t take my family away from me, I pleaded silently. Don’t hurt Aksel. With a smug expression, Arvid shoved me toward the bed.

Afterward, I sobbed, overwhelmed with shame. Arvid stood over me, glaring. “Tomorrow,” he said, “I plan to move in with you at the garden house. And if I even suspect that you’re sneaking off to be with him,” he spat the word, “then you’re both dead.”

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Both of us. And Meiying would have no one to care for her. And Jia would be raised by psychopaths.

And that was it. I snapped.

When Arvid headed off to shower, I pulled off my torn clothes and changed into a clean outfit. Hidden in the bottom of my bag was the pistol, which Aksel had polished until the metal gleamed. I closed my hand around the grip and released the safety. I felt an eerie sense of disconnect, as though I were in a dream. When Arvid returned to the bedroom, I stood slowly. Then I turned around and pointed the gun directly at him.

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Chapter 22: The Place of the Sun and the Moon

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The years crawled past, and still we were no closer to finding a way back to Earth. Although I had learned to read the strange language of the Bixsi creatures, thanks to Arvid’s insistence that I begin learning to fit in here, I had not come across any books dealing with spacecraft or space exploration. And Aksel, despite all his scientific and engineering knowledge, had zero luck with designing any kind of vehicle using scraps, let alone something that could exit the atmosphere.

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Meanwhile, the girls were growing up. Jia went from being an irritable, neglected toddler to a sweet, nervous little girl whose face lit up whenever I arrived for our monthly visits. During those times, it was just the two of us, though always under the watchful eye of at least one member of the Bergfalk family. I sang to Jia in Chinese, spoke to her in Finnish and English, and brushed her soft, strawberry-blonde hair. I tried, in just a few short hours, to repair the damage that the Bergfalks had inflicted with their long list of strict rules and rigid expectations.

“It is the Bixsi way,” explained Arvid after his father punished Jia for reading a children’s book full of colorful pictures instead of a dull instructional text. “People of our family’s caste do not waste our time reading fairy tales and fantasy. She is expected to learn how to be useful.”

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I was horrified. For a civilization with such advanced technology, it was startling to learn that their social order was based on some inane caste system.

The Bergfalk reign of terror did not end with Jia. I, too, was scolded numerous times. For feeding Jia snacks between meals. For giving her a rag doll to play with which I had sewn myself using scraps of old clothes (“Our children do not play with toys!”). Even for pushing Jia too high on the playground swings.

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“For God’s sake, she’s not a baby!” I snapped at Katje.

Katje narrowed her eyes. “Our people do not allow our children to take unnecessary risks!” With that, she order Jia to get off the swing and go find something safer to do.

Ugh! I wished that I could just scoop up Jia in my arms and run away to the mountains, so that she could grow up free and happy like her sister. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t even tell Jia that she had a sister – a funny, energetic and imaginative sister who loved to climb rocks and go fishing in deserted ponds at her dad’s side.

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“We need to get Jia out of there.” I told Aksel. “It’s urgent!”

Aksel shook his head. “It’s too soon. We’re not ready. We don’t have a way to escape this planet, remember?”

“Then we can bring her to live here in the quarry.”

Aksel’s face darkened. “That’s insane. Do you really think we can kidnap a little girl and that no one will come searching for her? Or you?”

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We argued back and forth until Meiying interrupted us. “I know how we can get back to the Earth place,” she said, tugging Aksel’s shirt.

Aksel looked down at her. “Oh really? And how’s that?”

Meiying broke into a wide grin. “We just use one of the Bixsi people’s ships and fly there.”

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The fight drained out of me. I stroked her soft curls. “Fly one of their ships. Any idea where we can find one of those?”

“Yes I do,” said Meiying. “They’re in the place of the sun and the moon.”

“That sounds nice, sweetie,” I said. “I hope we can find such a place soon.”

“I’ll help you look!” Meiying flung out her arms and raced off, pretending to fly a spacecraft.

“You heard her,” I told Aksel. “We have to find the place of the sun and the moon.”

Aksel slipped his arms around me and pulled me close. “Okay, then we’ll start looking right away.”

“And then?”

“And then we’ll rescue Jia. I promise.  ”

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Chapter 21: Xifeng the Gangsta

As strange as it may sound, the quarry had begun to feel like home. At least, more like a home than Arvid’s compound, where I was still expected to spend most of my days working his precious Earth Garden. Luckily, he had cooled in his advances toward me, and rarely expected me to offer him any affection. He seemed quieter, more distant during his infrequent visits. The growing bags beneath his eyes made me wonder if he was having trouble sleeping. Was Jia keeping the family awake at night?

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Whenever I could, I escaped to the quarry, to Meiying’s precious face, and to Aksel’s warm, loving arms. We could almost pretend that we were a normal, happy family, that we weren’t prisoners on a planet far from our own, and that our other daughter wasn’t doomed to a childhood beneath the iron fist of Arvid and his family. Almost. We caught fish, scavenged for food and supplies, and explored the mountainside. We found a large telescope on the roof of one of the quarry structures and began to study the skies, trying to gain understanding of where we were. One day, Meiying and I came across an ominous, boarded-up cave. The thick darkness within sent chills down my spine, but I made a note of its location, should our little family ever need to hide.

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While out exploring one day, Aksel made a very important discovery. There was another tiny room at the base of the quarry, which contained a workbench and various tools. But that wasn’t all he found.

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“A gun?” My mouth went dry as I stared at the weapon in Aksel’s hand.

His voice was grim. “A few rounds of ammunition, too. And Xifeng—” He paused, waiting to see how I would react to him using my Chinese name. I blinked, then gave him an approving nod. Somehow, it felt right. I was the Phoenix. And I was Xifeng. I was both, all along. I was all of the me’s I had ever been, rolled into one. And right now, I was Xifeng who was trembling at the sight of a gun. “You have to learn how to shoot it. We both do. To protect our daughter. To protect both our daughters. And to help us get home.” He placed the gun in my hand. “Come on. I’ll walk you through it.”

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The metal was cool and hard in my unsteady hands as Aksel showed me the basics. Then he scooped Meiying into his arms and covered her ears as I aimed toward a rocky field and pulled the trigger. Bang! The force of the gun firing knocked me off balance. I steadied myself, then fired again. Bang! Bang! Bang! I, Xifeng, was a weapons-yielding anti-alien gangsta.

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At last, when I had come down from my power trip, Aksel took a turn firing into the distance. His expression was so dark and intense, I wondered if he was imagining shooting at Arvid. I’m not sure what made me feel so uneasy – a surge of sympathy for Arvid, or the part where I didn’t want to see Aksel turn to the dark side and become a murderer. Even if that’s what it took to get our family home.

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